There’s No Such Thing as a Free Puppy

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When his greyhound started vomiting nonstop, personal finance blogger Jacob Irwin was worried about the dog but not about how he’d pay the vet bill. He and his fiancée had a separate savings account for just such an emergency.

“We looked at past vet bills and determined that we would need to have a good amount of money on hand for health issues,” Irwin wrote in a post on his website, My Personal Finance Journey.

A good amount, indeed: Three days’ worth of tests and treatment came to $1,100. The couple maintains $2,000 in an account for two dogs and a cat.

Got your own emergency fund in place? Good. Now start one for Fluffy, Phoebe Mae or Furio.

Having a separate account for your animal companion just makes sense. Sure, your pet may lead a charmed life and never get sick, eat something from the trashcan or be attacked by another animal. Don’t bet on it.

Not that accidents or illness are the only reasons to have a pet EF. All sorts of associated costs could nibble away at your budget. That new kitten is darling but now you’ll need to pay a pet sitter during your long business trips. You love your Rottweiler pup but he’s putting a real bite on your homeowners insurance premium.

And don’t forget damage, because pets are, well, animals: They dig, chew, spray, scratch and otherwise indulge themselves on furniture, landscaping and family heirlooms. They also get sick; my sister’s dog recently got a truly horrible case of gastroenteritis. She had to cough up $783 in vet bills plus an additional $170 for a professional carpet cleaning.

Be prepared

Serious issues can arise without warning. Ellen Cannon’s 5-year-old cat, Zito, stopped eating and wasn’t drinking much water. The vet determined that the cat’s kidneys were abnormal and that one of them probably wasn’t functioning at all.

In a post on Get Rich Slowly, Cannon explained that the treatment cost about $3,000 and turned out to be the wrong thing to do. The cat pulled out her feeding tube, refused to use the litter box and even bit her owner. Meanwhile, Zito’s littermate was hissing and growling at her; the two had to be separated for Zito’s safety.

After four days Cannon realized the treatment was harming rather than helping, and decided to have her beloved cat euthanized. The loss made her realize that her other cat’s vet bills would surely rise as he grew older.

“So that woke me up to needing to set money aside just for that,” Cannon says. She now puts about $500 away per year.

Sometimes the issue is age or a chronic condition. You might need to hire a dog walker to prevent your 12-year-old hound from dirtying the floor before you can get home from work. A cat suffering from bladder issues needs not just treatment but special (and more expensive) foods for the rest of its life.

Automate it

That’s why it’s just smart to plan for illness, accidents and the irregular expenses associated with animal companions. Start your fund by figuring out what expenses might crop up in the coming year. (Irwin based his fund on past vet bills, but you might want to raise that amount as your pet ages.)

Divide that amount by 12 and set up an automated monthly withdrawal into a separate account at your bank or credit union.

Should you factor in pet insurance premiums? Depends on whom you ask. Consumer Reports suggests that pet insurance is rarely worth the price, although it may be cost-effective in some cases. You could also think of your pet EF as “self-insurance.”

Certainly it pays to shop around. A site called Pet Insurance Review offers feedback from insured-pet owners. It’s also essential to read the fine print very carefully, especially if you have a pet known for breed-specific issues (which may not be covered). For more information, see “Should You Buy Pet Insurance?

Bottom line: A lot of owners say they’d do anything for their pets. But needing to shell out hundreds (or thousands) of dollars can be a major blow to the budget. Use your head as well as your heart, and prepare for pet-related issues by setting up a fund to cover them.

Readers, do you have a pet emergency fund? If you have tips to offer, leave a comment below or share them on our Facebook page.

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